The day after Christmas, Connor and I loaded up a rental car and took off for the mountains and lochs of the Scottish Highlands. After a full day driving, we arrived near Lochgoilhead and settled into one of the best Airbnbs of the last couple years. Our hosts converted an old stable into a gorgeous eco tiny home (she is an architect) and it’s now a Grade II listed building. Fresh baked sourdough, a fire in the stove, piles of wool blankets, and a puppy named Pixie greeted us. We immediately regretted not booking the place for more than two nights. Continue reading “Scottish Highlands”
Claire, my wonderful sister-in-law, came to visit the week after Thanksgiving and we had such a blast introducing her to England! It’s been so long since I’ve seen my siblings or siblings-in-law, and it was so nice to spend a week with Claire. We visited York, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Birmingham, and London. Continue reading “Claire Came to Visit!”
Prior to our move abroad, I picked up Edward Rutherford’s epic novel Sarum and somehow managed to reach the end. This book provides a sweeping history of England by tracing various families from neolithic times to the 20th century. The majority of the 1,000 pages are set in present day Salisbury, Continue reading “Visiting Salisbury and Winchester”
Ávila is a tiny town only an hour or so from Madrid that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Famous for its towering medieval stone walls, 12th century cathedral, and ties to St. Teresa of Ávila, this was a wonderful place to stay for a night. After massive amounts of walking and exploring in Madrid, I was immediately charmed by the size of the city and solitude of the surrounding countryside.
Even though our visit corresponded with one of the busiest times of the year, the feast day of St. Teresa, I would hardly describe the place as crowded. St. Teresa is one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church and she lived much of her life here. We visited her convent, church, and a mini-museum containing her diary, many original writings, the rosary and crucifix that she carried everywhere, and one of her fingers. We also saw her gigantic statue that is brought out on a “float” for processions. These are very common in Spain and they are carried through the streets during festivals and celebrations and then displayed for a few weeks before being tucked safely away. We saw them in each of the cities we visited, and I have to say they’re quite impressive and such a fun tradition. The one in Ávila was covered in flowers.
A visit to Ávila isn’t complete without touring the old city walls, or murallas. They date from the 12th century and are remarkably well preserved, standing atop old Muslim battlements. Stones dating to Roman times were also reused in the construction of the murallas, so the massive fortress is a kind of testament to the multiple civilizations that have occupied this hilltop. We climbed up and walked the perimeter of the city and I absolutely loved the views! Mountains in the far distance, little cottages and farms, and the red roofs of the town.
We spent about 24 hours in Ávila and then drove south to Toledo. Exploring smaller towns and off-the-beaten-track areas has quickly become my favorite way to travel! If you’re spending a few days in Madrid, I highly recommend adding a day to see Ávila or Toledo so you can experience Spanish life outside the capitol.
We overdid it a bit last week. Too much adventure. Too little rest. Not enough healthy food. And when I say “we” I mean me and Penny. Connor escaped unscathed.
A week ago Saturday we climbed (what we believe was) Kinder Scout, one of the highest peaks in the Peak District. Monday we left for Amsterdam. Flew back late Tuesday night. Picked up Penny from her doggie hotel on Wednesday morning. She immediately started barfing. I cleaned up dog puke all day. Friday we left Paris and hoped our dog would be alive when we returned. Great weekend in Paris – biking and walking all over the place and wearing ourselves out. Sunday night I felt a bit queasy – hot sun, too much bread and cheese, 40,000 steps in one day, not enough sleep. No surprise. Monday we woke up at the crack for our flight and I was not. well. I collapsed on the couch with the flu and have been here ever since, binge watching Netflix. Penny and I are both on the BRAT diet.
I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. Endurance is not my strong point. I do things quickly and intensely and need ample recovery time. My adrenaline reserve was depleted before we even left for Amsterdam and my body just can’t handle it. Lesson learned. Also, many happy returns to the person who gave me the flu. Bastard.
So while Penny and I continue our pity party and finish whatever season of New Girl we’ve made it to, here are some pictures of Kinder Scout in the Peaks. Stay tuned next week for fun bits and bobs about Amsterdam and Paris.
Kinder Scout was gorgeous! The hike was incredible and the day was perfect, one of the warmest we’ve had yet. I could sit and look at the sprawling views all day. Purple heather was everywhere. Bliss.
Monday marked the one year anniversary of our move to England. Craaazyyyyy!
We’ve been rather reflective lately, thinking back on the places visited and lessons learned, what we miss about America and which British customs we plan to bring home. Overall, we have been pleasantly surprised by many aspects of life in the UK. We both feel that the biggest surprise was Wales. We knew absolutely nothing about Wales before moving here, and it is gorgeous! Sparsely inhabited, very reachable from Birmingham, and an outdoor lover’s dream.
1. Walking TRAILS
Despite her finicky and often unpredictable weather, England is a hiker’s heaven. The country maintains a vast network of trails that as far as I can tell, mainly traverse private property and farmland. There’s a distinct walkers etiquette and dutiful adherence to the “leave no trace” rule. The relationship between trusting landowner and respectful walker is impressive. Gates are closed to prevent livestock from wandering, I haven’t noticed any trash on the trails, nor have I seen signs discouraging walkers from approaching. On the contrary, roads are peppered with signs pointing out the public footpaths. Every region of the country is covered in beautiful trails. This leads me to my second surprising item…
2. Varied Topography
I had no idea the UK was so beautiful. I think I assumed England was a lot like Ireland, but the topography is significantly more varied here and thanks to those public footpaths, we have plenty of territory left to explore. Highlights from little mini trips over the last year include the cliffs and coves of North Devon, the Mediterranean looking Jurassic Coast with its fossils and rock formations, the white cliffs in Dover, the rolling dales in Yorkshire, the hills and lakes in the Lake District, peaks in the Peak District (also here) and flat golden fields in Norwich. There’s a saying “When you’re tired of London you’re tired of life,” a popular maxim that may be partially responsible for the fact that no one is talking about the other 95% of the country. And they should really talk about it more often! Visitors need to get out and see the rural areas, too!
3. Well-preserved and accessible history
England has done an astonishing job in this department. London has over 20 free and excellent museums alone (it could be 40… I’m not about to start counting). The English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments, and sites throughout the UK, and the National Trust cares for over 500. Think Downton Abbey when the family realized they could no longer afford the upkeep of such a grand estate. These trusts now care for tons of old manor homes and country houses, many of which still act as family residences. Because of these partnerships many magnificent buildings and iconic sites have been preserved. Both organizations offer year-long memberships at very affordable prices that grant you free access to all their sites. If you visit one place each month your membership is more than paid for.
Aside from these grand buildings and iconic sites (like Stonehenge – English Heritage), individual villages, towns, and their many churches are well-cared for. Conservation and repair is taken seriously. The British Geological Survey formed in 1839 is responsible for identifying and archiving the more than 1,000 different stones used in buildings throughout the country. The geological diversity has become very apparent as we’ve explored different corners of the country. We’ve seen the famous Cotswold stone, a type of limestone that yellows with age; highly textured buildings and walls in the county of Norwich made of pebbles and cobbles; the blue shale-like stones in Wales, and so many others. I love that the British focus on conservation over tearing down and modernizing. Yes, this means country roads are ridiculously narrow because the towns were created before cars were even thought of. So what. If we weren’t forced to slow down, we would miss the gorgeous little villages.
One final thought: The Blue Plaque project that started in London and expanded from there is one of my favorite little history nuggets. Buildings that housed notable people are given a circular blue plaque to commemorate the moment. It’s a fun little treasure hunt. I stumbled upon Graham Greene’s house in the Cotswolds, the building where Guy Fawkes was born in York, and there’s one on our church in Birmingham where John Henry Cardinal Newman lived. Tolkien also lived in the Oratory rectory for years after his mother passed away, and I’m sure there’s a plaque hiding somewhere on the premises.
4. Extremely Dog Friendly
Outside London, you can basically bring your dog anywhere and apologize in surprise if reprimanded. Pubs generally admit dogs, especially if you’re somewhere in the countryside. There’s no such thing as a pub needing a permit to have a patio and then a second permit to admit dogs on the patio, which can never be granted if your patio/beer garden doesn’t have a separate entrance than the entrance serving the main part of the building. Good grief. People here just do what they want. Chicago, are you listening?
5. Amusing Names of Cities and Pubs
Apparently the early British settlers who moved to America had little to no sense of humor. They named their new towns after the ones back in England, but didn’t choose any of the good ones! I expected Cambridge, York, Boston, etc. But where in America is Little Snoring and Great Snoring? What about Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter? Stow-on-the-Wold, Giggleswick, Lickey End, Broadbottom, Bootle, Upton Snodsbury, Blubber Houses, Kirby Grindalythe… Bitchfield… pan around England on Google Maps for awhile. City names are fabulously creative.
Pubs are equally fascinating. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The Prince of Wales Feathers. Also, every town has either The Kings Head, The Queens Head, The Kings Arms, or The Queens Arms. Or, if they’re being creative, they’ll make it The Dukes Head.
Months ago, our friends Andrew and Melanie invited us to spend a day or two with them while they honeymooned on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to see them! We added a couple extra days to the trip so we could see the Cliffs of Moher and maybe a town or two, leaving our itinerary open so we could be spontaneous.
We drove from Dublin to Limerick and pulled into our Airbnb well after midnight. Our hostess’ name was Sadhbh (love it) and she could not have been more welcoming. She must have said “grand” twenty five times in the span of five minutes. We were sorry to crash and dash since she was so kind, but we wanted to make it to the Cliffs of Moher the next day before lunchtime. A failed study-abroad experience in Ireland taught me that if you look out the window and see a dry Ireland, get your butt moving because it won’t last until your next meal. I think its the only place with weather more miserable than England. Which must be why they paint all their buildings in bright, cheerful colors.
We did a drive-by of Limerick’s city center along the River Shannon, saw King James’ Castle, and grabbed coffees and a smoothie from Arabica Coffee Co. on Shannon Street. We highly recommend this place if you’re a coffee lover and find yourself in Limerick! Then we hit the cliffs.
Major travel tip: you can easily avoid the crowds and ridiculous per person “entrance” fee to the cliffs viewing area by parking somewhere other than the official Cliffs of Moher welcome center. We parked at a farm south of the official entrance for 2 euro and then had a glorious hike along the entire south arm of the cliffs. This was the best weather we had for the entire trip, and the views were stunning. If you’re traveling with children, be aware that there are no fences or guard rails. You can get as close as you dare to the edge…
On the way to Dingle that afternoon, we accidentally took the scenic route through Conor Pass, a twisty narrow road up and down a mountain, not really wide enough for two-way traffic. The fog was so thick that we couldn’t see beyond the car in front of us, but the few glimpses we caught of the mountain were breathtaking. And so begins my repetitive narrative about our time in Dingle. I’m sure it was all beautiful, but we couldn’t see a thing.
We had a great dinner in town that evening with our friends and the next day the four of us drove around the peninsula to see some ancient sites and ruins. Half of these were not worth the entrance fee, but to be fair, if the weather was nicer, I’m sure each site would have provided beautiful views of the sea and countryside. If you plan to do this driving tour in bad weather, skip the hill fort and random stone piles and opt instead for the largely intact structures like the Gallarus Oratory…
Kilmalkedar Church (ruins with cemetery)…
and Fahan Beehive Huts…
Each site has a little Irish boy sitting in a booth or playing with his dog ready to collect 2-3 euro per person before sending you through to the sites.
Connor and I stayed in a perfect little flat on a sheep farm 2 miles outside of Dingle Town owned by a woman from Missouri and her Irish husband. Their Airbnb listing mentions:
We are farmers, so we are early to bed and early to rise. The apartment is directly over our bedroom, so if your lifestyle means you don’t know night from day then booking our accommodation might not be suitable… for you or for us.
Noted! Combined with the little signs of scary leprechauns sprinkled throughout the flat reminding visitors to remove shoes, turn off lights, unplug computers, etc we decided our hosts were either grumpy or funny. Later, Jan invited us to a drop in music session at a pub where she would be playing. She asked if we played instruments and said we could borrow some of hers! Naturally, I pressured Connor to seize the day. Playing in a pub in the motherland with a bunch of long lost kin!!! DO IT! Eventually he agreed. So what if it was actually bluegrass music, and the guitar was out of tune… Jan was our new favorite person.
When we left Dingle we decided to drive the Ring of Kerry before heading to our next Airbnb on another farm outside of Killarney. Once again, the fog prevented us from seeing anything. We had 1.5 moments of clarity, and here are the pictures to prove it.
I’m actually surprised how many decent photos we ended up with from this trip. It was rainy and foggy every day except the morning at the cliffs. Too wet and foggy to hike. Fishing charters were cancelled. To sum it up:
June 24-July 1 was one of those weeks. Nothing goes right and all commitments and sanity go out the window. For one, the weather in Birmingham BLOWS and I do not understand how people live here full-time. Do not let the above picture deceive you. That was not taken in Birmingham. Secondly, I received 2 parking tickets because I’m a total idiot. Third, Penny suddenly became very ill with alarming symptoms and we had a very expensive week in and out of the vet’s office. As a result, I spent my week reading about dog illnesses and medicines and remedies and food. Now, I’m going to share trip reports out of chronological order because I feel like it and I’m the boss. Thankfully, the dog is doing much better and we were able to get away for the weekend to celebrate the 4th of July.
One bucket list item that we’ve been dying to check off our list this summer is a visit to the Jurassic Coast on the English Channel. This part of the coast is England’s only natural World Heritage Site, which places it in the same category as the Great Barrier Reef, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. Of the 1,000 or so World Heritage Sites, less than 200 are naturally occurring, and England’s Jurassic Coast looked positively dreamy in pictures. 95 miles of rock formations, cliffs, and beaches cover 185 million years of Earth’s history: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
As you can imagine, fossil hunting is a popular activity. When I visited London’s Natural History Museum a couple months ago I was surprised at the number of whole, intact fossils on display that were discovered along the Jurassic Coast, many by an impoverished woman named Mary Anning. Mary was a sort of Princess of Paleontology, and her numerous discoveries not only pulled her family out of poverty but also ended up in museums around the country. Her lizard/fish/dinosaur/turtle-like creatures of all sizes are in London’s Natural History Museum, and I highly recommend a visit. It’s the only non-creepy natural history museum I’ve ever seen (due to its emphasis on dinosaurs and fossils over taxidermy). The building itself is also stunning.
Moving on… We decided the 4th of July just wasn’t the 4th of July without a little sun and beach time, and since it’s persistently grim in Brum, we headed south to the county of Dorset, starting in Weymouth. The city is a great launching point for exploring the Jurassic Coast, and it supposedly tallies up more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in England. Fine with me. We walked along the harbor and the beach, explored the tiny side streets and shops, and bought some goodies for our campsite that evening. We met a chatty and very kind man from Wales who was visiting for the weekend with his children and grandchildren. As usual, Brexit and Donald Trump came up, but for the first time, so did Taylor Swift and Beyonce. He asked me if I was from Northern Ireland. You guys – this question marks a triumphant moment in my quest to appear as close to invisible as possible! My accent and adorable puppy-like dog draw attention everywhere I go, and sometimes I just don’t want to answer questions. Sometimes I don’t want to explain why I’m here and what I think about Donald Trump. If the small talk topics would vary, maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. At this point, I have picked up enough British lingo that I can utter short phrases or noncommittal sounds without sounding American. But this guy totally made my day when he incorrectly guessed my nationality.
After Weymouth we drove a few miles east and saw Chesil Beach, a 15 mile long pebble wonderland formed by the remains of a landslide that occurred 100 million years ago. Its vastness was surprising, but other than that, it was just a pebble beach, so we moved on to our campsite. This place in Osmington was a serious find and I think we’ll return if we ever decide to camp again. It had great views, coastal access, and was within walking distance of a 14th century thatched roof pub.
Camping Attempt #2 was much more successful than #1. We packed food, our grill, wood, and 2 down blankets. We planned to encase ourselves in feathers so we couldn’t feel the hard ground or the cold night air. This seemed entirely necessary; you can still see your breath when the sun sets. Talk about overkill. I woke up sweating to death, claustrophobic, convinced I was being smothered by an evil cloud.
The following day we drove a bit further east to Durdle Door, Man of War Beach, and Lulworth Cove, three of the more popular stopping points along the Jurassic Coast. There were more people than we expected, many from other countries, and many very overdressed. I don’t know if its an American thing or just a personal preference, but I don’t see the point of wearing anything other than gym/outdoor clothing if I know I’m going to be exerting myself and sweating. Perhaps I’ve just totally let myself go in the last year.
Lulworth Cove had a small visitor’s center, shops, fishing huts, and everyone was serving seafood. We were so tempted to try the Michelin restaurant offering fishermen pints of beer in exchange for their daily catch, as long as the fish passed inspection by “Philip or the chef.” Instead, we opted for a stand at the seaside selling fresh fish so we could continue enjoying the sunshine. Connor had fish and chips and I had a crab sandwich. Both were delicious.
It was a gorgeous weekend and we’ll definitely be back to the Jurassic Coast to keep exploring the bays, cliffs, and paths. And I don’t think I’ll ever have my fill of seafood, so even if we end up with a rainy day I think I’ll be a happy camper. As long as we aren’t camping in the rain…
The Yorkshire Dales National Park is a popular walking destination in England made up of river valleys and hills. A “dale” is a valley, a word derived from old Nordic and Germanic languages. Dales throughout the county of Yorkshire are named after their corresponding river: Swaledale, Wharfedale, Waldendale, Raydale, Washburndale, etc. After our fabulous breakfast in Leeds, we drove to tiny Kettlewell and tackled the Great Whernside walking route, heading for the rocky summit of Wharfedale. Gorgeous day!!
Scale is so difficult to convey in photos. That rock was large enough for us to stretch out and have a picnic lunch away from the soggy mossy hill we were climbing.
Sidebar on hiking lunches: we need a new go-to hiking lunch. Last winter in Italy, we developed a habit of buying baguettes and pre-sliced salami for quick and cheap sustenance. This works decently well in countries known for their salami. This doesn’t work so well if you buy the cheapest meat full of chemicals and baddies in random places like Yorkshire. It basically ruins your insides. I won’t go into details. Option #2, PB&Js, had a brief comeback a couple weeks ago when we visited the south of England with Connor’s parents. Something about the sog factor and lack of actual nutrients booted this out of the rotation. I’m all ears if anyone has any suggestions. I’ll give you a blue ribbon if it doesn’t involve bread or sugar.
Penny has proved to be an excellent little traveler. She sleeps most of the day when we’re at home, but is always up for an adventure as long as it doesn’t involve swimming. She seems to be happy as long as she’s with us. We didn’t know what to expect when we put her in a backpack the first time, but she doesn’t seem to mind it. In fact, when she sees us packing up a bag for a day trip she knows a walk is coming and starts jumping all over the place. She does her fair share of walking on these hikes, but we try to carry her when the terrain is muddy or covered in sheep shit. Both are fairly common. Adders (European vipers) are a concern in many parts of England, and ticks are rampant, so sometimes it’s just safer to keep her in the bag.
As usual, we saw plenty of sheep. The lambs are so adorbs.
That evening we pitched our tent and then drove back to the town of Harrogate to pick up some dinner. Even though I was a bit embarrassed to be seen with a pizza box, the other campers in the field didn’t seem all that committed to traditional, rugged camping techniques either. Their tents were the size of small houses with giant inflatable mattresses inside. Temporary privacy screens walled off sections of claimed space (can’t help but wonder if a little Oklahoma Land Rush went down in these parts). Wine glasses were clearly visible on tables. And then, our tiny little clown car rumbles through the scene. I can just see this through their eyes. Out pops a limping man, an odd girl in a baseball hat and sweatshirt (simply not a thing in England), and a tiny dog wearing a puffy winter coat. These rubes pitch their Tesco children’s tent and then drive off, only to return an hour and a half later with a pizza box and bag full of beer. The next morning, they’re gone before anyone else is awake.
For those of you in the States, imagine for a moment what you would do if your trusty one-stop-shop disappeared off the face of the earth. No more Target or Meijer, not even Walmart. You need to source all your possessions from specialty, expensive boutiques that may not have a website or a brick and mortar in your city. You have no idea how to even find these places to overpay for pillows, cookie sheets, a rain coat, and other
superfluous essential items. Your neighbors don’t speak English so you can’t ask them for suggestions. You can either shop at the Dollar Store or Aldi. You hold your breath as you walk through the doors and hope that their pathetic bins of inventory 1) are actually full enough that you don’t have to compromise your dignity and dumpster dive to reach the items and 2) contain something of use.
In this alternate universe, the brilliant idea to go camping over a bank holiday becomes extremely complicated. Where the hell are you going to find an affordable tent of decent quality that won’t leak in the very likely event it rains? Yes, #firstworldproblems. Boo hoo, you have spend an entire day driving around your city looking for a tent or hoping Amazon UK learned something overnight from the States (definitely not).
I haven’t fully processed my thoughts on American vs British consumer habits, and I haven’t decided if I think Americans are spoiled, fortunate, or just doomed to a life of detached consumption and rampant materialism. (The latter is easily noticeable, but it also seems that Americans have more hobbies than the British, and hobbies = gear/supplies/stuff. If the British had more hobbies maybe they would spend less time sitting around drinking in dreary old pubs.)
Anyway, I admit that I’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of convenience and efficiency in my shopping habits. Because Target. Singlehandedly making my life easier since 2005. Dear Target, if you came to Britain, you would blow everyone’s mind and put a lot of small shops out of business.
Alas, I eventually found an affordable tent. The “rain fly” was smaller than a pair of my underpants. I also found sleeping bags, made of the most synthetic of synthetic materials. I’m pretty sure all this gear was intended for backyard sleepovers. The kind where the kids all end up in the house so poor quality gear is a non-issue.
SO, what did we do with our sub-par gear?! We drove a few hours north to Yorkshire, spent a day in York, stayed overnight at an Airbnb in Leeds, walked the Dales the next day, camped that night, and drove back to Birmingham the following day. Our tent was about 1/8 the size of all the other tents in this field. No joke. We also forgot about the whole food thing so we drove 30 minutes into a town and ordered a pizza. And it was delicious.
- It didn’t rain.
- We were freezing cold.
- Penny was initially scared of the tent.
- There are cows on the other side of that wall in the above picture.
- Connor thought he twisted his ankle at the end of the day’s hike.
- Penny scratched my eyeball in the tent and I spent the drive home thinking I would have to go to the emergency room and wear an eye patch.
- Both were false alarms.
Check back tomorrow for some pictures of Medieval York and the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales!